Ghost Town, Boom Town ... Our Town
Celebrating 100 years of city memories from blossoming oranges to crashing planes.
When Isaac W. Lord purchased raw land in 1887 and persuaded the Santa Fe Railroad to extend its tracks through his new buy, he put in motion a land boom that continues to this day. Promoting the land, Lord invited spectators to “Lordsburg” via a free train ride; more than 2,500 people accepted the invite and bought lots totaling $200,000—the largest Southern California land sale to that date. Building began immediately and has not stopped since, with Lordsburg officially incorporated as a city Aug. 20, 1906. Now 100 years later, La Verne Magazine looks back at the moments that made the town.
The Guestless Hotel
A stately three-story structure with pristine grounds, the finest accommodations, an accumulated capital of $100,000 and zero paying guests—the Lordsburg Hotel. With speculators spilling into Lordsburg by train, Lord, founder and president of the hotel, believed his establishment would burst with business. When construction first began in 1887, Lord saw a promising boomtown. However, when construction finished in 1888, his excitement died down, as the hotel lay dormant in a “boom town” turned “bust town.”Attempting to save his investment, Lord teamed with the Santa Fe Railroad to bring professional colonizer George L. McDonaugh to revitalize the community. McDonaugh contacted Mathew Mays Eshelman, a Church of the Brethren minister, to view the town. Immediately, Eshelman saw the ideal spot for a Brethren colony but was later convinced by retailers that the vacant Lordsburg Hotel would make the ideal college site. Brethren men purchased the hotel on March 30, 1891, for $75,000. The deal included a clause promising $1,250 grant for educational purposes from Lord’s land companies if the college opened within two years. In March 1891, the deal was sealed for the first Church of the Brethren college on the West Coast. Lordsburg Academy opened its doors September 1891, with 76 students and eight faculty members. “There were about 35 towns along the railroad that had the same kind of beginning, and you never heard of them again, but I think it was the college that made La Verne survive,” says Marlin Heckman, University of La Verne librarian emeritus.
Church of the Brethren
The Brethren’s history in La Verne dates back to the community’s settlement in 1887. With hopes of colonizing sleepy Lordsburg, McDonaugh and Eshelman brought Brethren groups from eastern states. The agrarian Brethren settlers came from states such as Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Illinois hoping to find cheap land to support growing families. “The church was quite conservative; a lot of news stories that came out in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers were trying to describe the Brethren to other people. They were solid, conservative farmers; they worked hard and did not smoke or drink and had very strong social order,” says La Verne Historian Galen Beery.
Promotions continued to draw in Brethren, including “The Southern Californian,” a weekly newspaper printed by Eshelman. Lordsburg appealed to other Brethren communities by showing off the wonders of California. With the help and interest of the railroad, Lordsburg shipped produce to Brethren conferences back east and Eshelman and other leaders constantly traveled eastward to bring new members to Lordsburg. And by 1902, the orange boom’s surplus money allowed the Brethren to build their first church. “The Church of the Brethren at its height had more than 1,200 members,” Beery says. The Brethren community continued to grow, and Lordsburg eventually became the largest Brethren colony on the Pacific Slope.
“The ones that came out to California were the more progressive sort, and they said, ‘It makes sense to help the town grow,’” Beery says. “The Church of the Brethren has been a very, very great influence in the development of the city.”
“Over the years, the members of the church have been highly involved in politics, neighborhoods and the quality of life in the city,” says Martin Lomeli, La Verne city manger. “Currently out of our five council members, three are from the Church of the Brethren, and I think that is reflective of the city’s past.”
“Many people like to try to say the Brethren ran the town, but I don’t think that’s true,” Heckman says. “There were Brethren on the City Council for many years, but this wasn’t a town founded and run by the Brethren; they were the majority of the town at a time, but I don’t think that’s a fair characterization.”
Nevertheless, Brethren beliefs have shaped the community’s conservative, family-oriented nature. “La Verne has been strongly influenced by churches—I think we have about 24 churches, which is a large number for a relatively small community—and I believe the church has had a major influence on the positive nature of our city,” says La Verne Mayor Jon Blickenstaff.
A Marriage Ceremony Like No Other
Carrying a bouquet of orange blossoms, Miss Lordsburg walked down the aisle to exchange vows —and names—with Mr. La Verne, in a mock wedding ceremony in the hotel auditorium Sept. 27, 1917, to commemorate Lordsburg’s name change. Oscar W. Raley played Miss Lordsburg, and W.S. Romick played Mr. La Verne with Hervey Nichols presiding over the ceremony. The name change brought the community out of its founder’s shadow.
The ceremony marked an end to a bitter confrontation between I. W. Lord and his townsfolk. Embarrassed and frustrated with the name “Lordsburg,” citizens had petitioned for a change. Even the college students joined the fracas. However, Lord did not take the change lightly and took the College to court. Heckman, researching the name change, found 1912 court documents quoting Lord. “Who do these students think they are? They’re only tangents; they’re only going to be here a few years; what does it matter what the college is named?” Lord won the case, and the Lordsburg residents endured the name until he died in 1917. “He wasn’t beloved as you would think a founder of a town might be,” says Heckman. Known as “fair, fat and 40,” Lord did not even live in his town, but instead in Alta Loma, commuting to Lordsburg by train. The townspeople acted fast, officially instating the name “La Verne” Aug. 16, 1917, with a vote of 239 to 81. The name “La Verne,” a French term meaning “spring-like” or “growing green,” reflected the city’s surrounding area and came from Mrs. Pixley, who won the town naming contest.
The Rise and Fall of an Empire
In the beginning, La Verne’s citrus empire struggled against the desert-like climate. But as wells and windmills spouted, farmers were encouraged to plant the groves. With M.L. Sparks, W.S. Romick and L.H. Bixby planting more than 20 acres, the citrus industry officially took over La Verne, stretching 100 years, from 1876 to 1976.
The entire Pomona Valley became the world leader in the citrus in-dustry. The city raised the finest oranges, known throughout the nation as “La Verne Beauties.” The oranges were shipped across the nation, as examples of the “good life” and California’s wealth. “Look at the value of oranges—this was an exotic tropical fruit. People from the East wanted more and more oranges, and they grew very well here,” says Beery.
Despite Southern California’s sunny weather, La Verne’s citrus groves endured a chilling threat, known as the Jan. 7, 1913, “Freeze.” La Verne’s industry took a tremendous blow that night. To prevent future frosts from robbing La Verne of its crop, the “smudge pot” was developed. Many college students worked around the clock smudging to keep the groves alive.
The La Verne Growers Association, incorporated July 31, 1909, establishing a producer cooperative for member’s packing and marketing needs. The association’s packing house increased from 275 to 626 carloads of oranges annually within five years. By 1919, the association was managing approximately 1,000 carloads of oranges annually. In that same year, the La Verne Lemon Association and the La Verne Orange Association separated, creating a district organization called the La Verne Fruit Exchange, a member of Sunkist.
La Verne enjoyed the citrus industry’s height from approximately 1925 to 1945. By 1934, the city took pride in hosting the second largest navel packing-house in the world. It is estimated that La Verne packinghouses handled 75 percent of the orange trade. “The citrus industry had its growth in the ‘20s, and La Verne was known as the heart of the orange empire because there were more oranges grown in La Verne than any other city on earth,” historian Beery says.
The industry collapsed slowly over time. “The loss of the citrus industry has been the biggest change in the last 50 years,” Heckman says. One of the major reasons was “quick decline,” a virus that attacked sour root orange stock, causing the trees to die rapidly.
Soot pollution plagued the groves, reducing their health and quality. “All the smudging got so bad in the 1920s, that the women of La Verne tried to figure out how they could get smudging stopped,” Beery says. “And we’re talking about in your house in the morning—you could look out your window and see little bits of soot sparkling in the sunbeam and you could walk across your lawn, and it would crunch because there was that much soot on the ground.”
And then there was developer demand for land. In the end, many growers gave in, selling their land because property value outweighed the unprofitable groves. “I’ve lived here my whole life, so I’ve seen the change from almost total orange groves to the point where they are non-existent,” says La Verne Mayor Jon Blickenstaff. “Within my lifetime, we’ve gone from a very sleepy little town in a relatively suburban region to a megalopolis.” Along with the groves’ absence came the community’s fading connection to a common tie. The houses moved in, and people began taking jobs outside the city. “La Verne’s a bedroom town now; people live here and work elsewhere,” Beery says.
The citrus industry’s benefits were more than just financial. La Verne’s people became a close-knit community because of the city’s dedication to the groves. The packing houses employed men and women. College students found work smudging the groves. Children were given an endless playground for their imaginations, and La Verne possessed a charm only rural towns can radiate. Whether growing, smudging or picking, the community members were engaged in the groves. Much of La Verne’s identity is derived from the groves. Many of the city’s crests and logos host the once dominant oranges, and the University of La Verne’s colors, orange and green, were inspired by the founders peering into the groves and picking the eye-catching colors. One tribute grove to the orange empire survives in Heritage Park, located in north La Verne.
Crashing into History
After 49 days of transcontinental flight, weather and engine trouble, and several crashes, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, out of gas, crashed landed on a flat wheat strip known today as Brackett Airport. Residents rushed to catch a glimpse of the daring pilot making history. Star-struck crowds swarmed around Rodgers and his plane. After taking off from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York, Rodgers fell into La Verne on Nov. 5, 1911, making him the first person to fly across the continental United States—pretty good for a pilot with only an hour and a half of flight instruction.
Rodgers managed to fly a fragile Wright Brothers Model EX biplane across the states. He survived 15 serious crashes during this journey. The plane was hardly the same craft as when it first took off; it has been said that every engine part and piece of fabric was replaced during the course of the flight. Sponsored by Armour Food Company, the plane was nicknamed the “Vin Fiz” after the company’s new grape drink. To meet the needs of his sponsor, Rodgers was required to promote the product with a fabric banner, flying low over large cities and handing out samples at each stop. “Rodgers’ flight at the time made a couple of firsts in history,” says Peter Jakab, chairman of the aeronautics division of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “He was the first to fly across the continental United States, and he was the first example of advertising on an airplane—he received a lot of press coverage making him quite a celebrity.”
The thrill, adventure and fame of flying across the United States were not the only factors driving Rodgers to his historical feat. Publish-ing tycoon William Randolph Hearst offered $50,000 to the first aviator to fly coast-to-coast in 30 days. Rodgers missed the deadline by 19 days, and the prize went unclaimed. “Rodgers was a larger than life personality—he was very social, known to constantly have a big cigar in his mouth, and always emerged as this indestructible guy,” Jakab says.
Acquired from the Carnegie Institute in 1934, the Wright EX “Vin Fiz” now hangs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
La Verne’s Families
Since the days of Lordsburg, La Verne has been a haven for generational families making a difference. Influential families can be found throughout the city on street names, parks and buildings. “Family is everything. Part of the risk, I feel, for society, is minimizing this family influence,” Mayor Blickenstaff says. La Verne lineages can be found everywhere. “People tend to stay in La Verne. For a community in Southern California, we have a lot of generations that stay in the community,” Lomeli says. “People raise their families here and thrive.”
La Verne’s history provides an almost endless list of families who have influenced the community since its beginnings. This impact can be seen throughout the city, from the orange empire to the Church of the Brethren to city government. Just naming a few: Dayton Newcomer was a city councilman and Farmers and Merchants Bank cashier; he and his wife Lela had a son Leland, who would become the University of La Verne’s president from 1968 to 1975. Jacob and Martha Landis, along with children Rose, Ernest, Florence, Herman and Estella, were all graduates of La Verne College and taught school. In the 1930s, H.M. Hanawalt, a local contractor and dedicated Brethren, furnished without cost equipment and construction materials to build a church for the Brethren. Coming from across the United States, La Verne’s founding families included names such as Bixby, Williams, Metzger-Blickenstaff, Dubel, Keiser, Doughty, Nicholsons, Steves, Gillette, Martin, Neher, Hunter, McClellan, Mills, Haines, Price, Pobst and many more. Many of these families created lasting bonds with each other through marriages.
Blickenstaff has been a long-standing name in La Verne since 1890. “The family has been in this community for a long, long time and has always been actively involved in the community, church, the University and the city government.” says Blickenstaff. Mayor for 24 years, he follows in his grandfather’s, uncle’s and brother-in-law Frank Johnson’s footsteps as the head of La Verne. Although Blickenstaff’s grandfather and uncle died before giving him any advice on being mayor, he says their influence has helped. Johnson’s example influenced Blickenstaff greatly. “Frank has an outstanding ability to work with people—to listen and be responsive and truly care about people and understand responsibility to those people.” Blickenstaff’s father served as the fire chief for 36 years. “I feel a lot of pride in knowing our family has been involved for so long. I believe not just the number of years, but the quality of years of involvement—the city of La Verne has never had a significant bad time, there’s never been a downfall in our city—and I think part of that is the quality of service and the longevity of service; and to be apart of that is very rewarding. It’s common for people to express appreciation for the quality of life in La Verne, and to feel like you’re a part of that quality of life is very satisfying.” Steve Johnson, Frank’s son and current Council member, grew up watching his mayor father. “It brought home the family aspect of community,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know any different time growing up because dad was always a part of the city.”
Installation of 210 Freeway
Fifty years in the making, the 210 Freeway’s installation caused major headaches for La Verne since its 1952 addition to the State Master Plan for Freeways. Before finally opening in 2002, the freeway ended at Foothill Boulevard, dumping traffic into the heart of La Verne. Over time, land space for the freeway became harder to acquire. The state owned many pieces of property, but not the entire freeway’s length. Attaining un-purchased land proved daunting in the face of relocating homes and businesses.
The abrupt freeway ending had its costs and benefits. Traffic congestion on Foothill Boulevard aggravated La Verne residents and filled the streets with cars and pollution. This “misfortune” was also a blessing, bringing commuters’ money to La Verne businesses. “With the construction of the 210 freeway, it took a lot of the traffic off our local streets and put it on the freeway,” says Lomeli. “And originally that traffic helped La Verne develop because there were a lot more people in the city for businesses to develop; but it also was a negative because local people were concerned about driving on surface streets because traffic was so bad, and people did not want to stop, especially around some of our residential areas.” In the end, the price of installing the freeway hurt and helped La Verne in the name of progress. “People were afraid that when the freeway was built it would have a real negative impact, and that people would not shop in La Verne, but the opposite was true; it allowed more local people to shop in the city, and as a result all of our commercial corridors are doing quite well,” says Lomeli.
Impact of the Latino Community
“Coming from the other side of the tracks,” once had potent meaning in La Verne. The railroad tracks served as a prominent border segregating Whites and Latinos. “La Verne was a basic Southern California community, the railroad ran east to west, and the Latino community lived south, and everyone else lived to the north. They were two separate communities,” says Beery.
The Latino population dates back to Lordsburg’s beginning and has spawned generations of families who helped build the community. “The Latinos have been a small percentage in La Verne, but the ones who are here have been since the Lordsburg days, and they are very proud of it,” says Lupe Gaeta-Estrella, La Verne deputy city clerk and native. “The people who are here have always been here.” Many early families came during the Mexican Revolution, including the Mendoza and Lopez families. Eliseo and Concha Rodriguez had children who became active in community life: Robert, a La Verne city councilman for 24 years; Jay, a former vice president with NBC; Alice Morales, wife of former mayor Mike Morales and leader in bilingual education; Betty Constantine, teacher; Richard, former Pomona elementary principal and current school board member; and Denie, former secretary to Mt. San Antonio College’s president. Among many other notable names are the Romo, Castro, Cardenas, Martinez and Guerrero families.
Many members of the Latino community were employed originally as citrus industry pickers and packers. “They were primarily the work force that helped settle La Verne and provided the labor that aided the growth of the community—and they helped settle the community without a doubt,” Lomeli says. These Latino workers played a major role in the booming citrus industry’s success. “The Hispanics were the driving force of the orange empire,” Robert Rodriguez says.
Latino families resided in a neighborhood known as the “Barrio,” located on the south side of the railroad tracks at Walnut Avenue and Arrow Highway, also referred to as the “Walnut District” by the city of La Verne. Most of the families residing there today are relatives of the original founding families—a community Gaeta-Estrella calls, “one of the most stable neighborhoods in La Verne.”
Around the 1920s to the 1940s, two segregated schools educated children, with Whites attending Lincoln School, and Latinos attending Palomares School. The students at Palomares experienced savage inequalities with lower objectives, poor facilities and discrimination from the other side of the tracks. Rodriguez, reared in La Verne, experienced his school days much differently from his Latino peers—his family lived on the north side of the tracks. “My mother was a very determined lady, and she went to the superintendent of schools and said, ‘If the dividing line to go to Lincoln School was the railroad tracks, then her children were going to Lincoln School, so I was kind of an outcast from all the other Mexican kids in the area because they would always think I thought I was better because I went to the Anglo school.”
Rodriguez recalls the derogatory comments and actions against himself and his Hispanic peers. “I didn’t know I was Mexican till the fifth grade when kids would run around saying, ‘We’re going to play with the Mexicans today,’ and here I was saying it, and I’m Mexican.”
In 1947, the schools finally integrated, fulfilling the vision of J. Marion Roynon, Brethren and La Verne Schools’ superintendent from 1945 to 1958. “The Brethren were very receptive and didn’t look at persons for their color but based people, to quote Martin Luther King, ‘off of their character’ and their ability to perform,” Lomeli says. “They basically helped educate and end the racial barriers that were predominant in Southern California.” Today, neither of the schools exist. Palomares was replaced with a plastic manufacturing factory, and J. Marion Roynon Elementary School now occupies Lincoln School.
Not Your Average College Town
Through the years, the University of La Verne experienced just as many changes as the city itself. Following the name change of the town in 1917, Lordsburg College became La Verne College, and after years of growth and advancement, La Verne College realized university status in 1977. Today’s University of La Verne looks drastically different from Lordsburg College. The Lordsburg Hotel was torn down in 1927, and the Wilson Library is in its place today. The University has maintained many historical buildings such as Founders Hall, Miller Hall, and its converted packing houses stand in monument to the lost citrus empire.
Since Lordsburg College’s beginning in September 1891, the institution’s philosophies and values have reflected those of the city. “There’s a match between the University of La Verne and the community of La Verne,” Blickenstaff says. “I think the University has a personality very different from others, and it blends in so nicely with the community.”
A large part of that match is found in the Brethren influence. “Both the city and the University were heavily influenced by the members of the Church of the Brethren and their values,” says University President Stephen Morgan. “Those values are still reflected today in both the city and ULV. The values of human dignity, fairness, honesty and ethical behavior are important to both. Also, both have a strong emphasis on building a sense of community and maintaining a personalized environment.”
Significant, too, is the commitment to partnership. “We thrive and rely on working with others, including the University of La Verne. We believe we can best serve the community when we partner in that service,” Blickenstaff says. Sharing the same space and leadership for more than 100 years, the University and the city value each other’s presence and contributions. “We have many mutual interests that influence the well-being of both the city and ULV,” Morgan says. “We celebrate a similar life span and a shared history as very close partners, and it has been a long positive partnership.” ULV serves as the biggest employer in the city of La Verne.
“And when we talk about the quality of life—I think the people who value learning and education add to the quality life just with their presence, whether they’re a student, a staff member or professor, that’s a high quality addition to the community when a university comes in,” Blickenstaff says. The University’s younger population has played a major role in La Verne’s character. “The University makes La Verne an interesting and exciting place—having young people in town as well as the professors in town creates an environment that’s unique,” Lomeli says.
Not only has the University shaped La Verne’s character, but also the city’s economy has thrived from the institution’s impact. “The University and the city have really grown up together since both were founded within a few years of each other,” Morgan says. “The University helps make the downtown area vibrant, bringing several thousand people each day to the community. The University also brings distinction and prestige to the city—it has been a positive symbiotic relationship.”
What Does 100 Years Mean?
Once incorporated on Aug. 20, 1906, Lordsburg became a municipality, fully responsible for its governance and services. Attaining incorporation brought identity. “It’s like a business having a name, having a building, having a purpose to exist—the area is recognized as a city by the state of California as an entity with its own government and own way of raising funding and forming a budget,” Blickenstaff says.
Out of Los Angeles County’s 88 incorporated cities, La Verne stands among the earliest, ranking in the top 20. “Part of a 100-year anniversary is ceremonial,” Blickenstaff says. “When you reach that age, no matter what you’re doing—whether it’s your own personal life or the incorporation of a city—you have a lot of healthy signs. And I think La Verne is a healthy and positive community, where people celebrate that this has been a good place to be for these 100 plus years. To me, the heart of our whole community is the people; it’s families who are working well together, neighborhoods that enjoy each other’s company, volunteers who help kids—a safe and clean city.”